The 1000 faces of hikikomori

En novembre 2019, Filippo Cervelli (SOAS University of London — avait ouvert le deuxième de nos séminaires de recherche avec une conférence intitulée Stories of a Troubled Youth: Dissecting Social Malaise in the Literature of Kazushige Abe. Complément et prolongement de la définition qu’il avait proposée des hikikomori à cette occasion, voici un post où il revient sur un concept qu’il questionne dans plusieurs de ses autres chantiers de recherche, et notamment dans ceux où il s’agit d’enquêter les notions d’isolement radical, de désobéissance civile et d’inadaptation à la vie sociale habituelle. Cela vaut la peine de rappeler au moins l’un de ces projets en cours : la codirection d’un numéro thématique de la revue « Exchanges » ( consacré aux lonely nerds – dont l’appel à contribution avait été diffusé, entre autres sur, en avril dernier (

In the second episode of season three of the Italian TV show Baby, inspired by the 2014 scandal of underage prostitution in Rome, the young Fabio sees his friend/love interest Brando showing up at a party after weeks of reclusion at home. His surprised reaction is ‘Did you become a hikikomori?’ The fact that the term has entered a foreign product so seamlessly is striking particularly for two reasons: first, a Japanese expression has become internationally recognized as describing a particular phenomenon; second, it shed light into the associations this word has for narratives. Both aspects are important to understand the ramifications this issue has for medical humanities in terms of mental health and its representations.

Hikikomori, the nominalization of the verb hikikomoru (‘shut in’, ‘to seclude oneself’), indicates a multi-layered sociological and psychological phenomenon of reclusion (usually in one’s own home), and of suspension of social activities. The expression came to prominence in the late 1990s with the work of psychiatrist Tamaki Saitō, who defines it as the ‘act of retreating from society and avoiding contact with all people other than one’s own family’ [cf. Saitō, Tamaki. 2013. Hikikomori: Adolescence without End. Trans. Jeffrey Angles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 18]. It is important to bear in mind though that hikikomori does not necessarily mean never leaving the house; some hikikomori interact with the external world, and may even take part in small jobs, but usually they withdraw from profound engagement with the outside world and with intimate human relationships. While it is not easy to calculate the exact numbers, because the very nature of social withdrawal prevents recluses to seek assistance, the fact that Saitō in the late 90s estimated that there were at least one million in Japan, and that recent Cabinet surveys have detected more than half a million hikikomori in both 15-39 and 40-64 age ranges, attests to the diffusion and potential cultural repercussions of the phenomenon [cf. Saitō, Tamaki. 2001. ‘Hikikomori’ kyūshutsu manyaru (Rescue Manual for hikikomori). Tokyo: PHP kenkyūjo; Kyodo. 2019. ‘613,000 in Japan Aged 40 to 64 are Recluses, Says First Government Survey of Hikikomori’. In: The Japan Times: (accessed 2 October 2020)].

Despite actual figures, the issue has been traditionally associated with Japanese youth, from teenagers onwards, also due to associations with the economic bubble burst after the collapse of land asset prices in the early 1990s. In what has become known as the ‘ice age of employment’ (shūshoku hyōgaki), caused by progressive casualization of work and rising unemployment, many a youth entering the job market felt that they could not thrive, and lost hope in having any kind of success according to societal standards. Instances of individuals not engaging with school, work or social life in general, are now in turn part of the debates on post-bubble Japanese society, where increasing professional precarity has been concomitant with perceptions of instability in all levels of life, especially in terms of building human relationships. In this respect, cultural anthropologist Anne Allison has notably remarked that ‘being alone–literally, psychically, socially’ is the ‘new human condition for Japan/ese in the 21st century’ [Allison, Anne. 2012. ‘Ordinary Refugees: Social Precarity and Soul in 21st Century Japan’. In: Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Spring 2012). p. 349].

Therefore, hikikomori are a manifestation of a wider social predicament; currently, it is viewed as a sociocultural mental health phenomenon, rather than a distinct illness, and cases falling under this category are being identified outside of Japan too [Rooksby, Mary, Hamish J. McLeod, et al. 2020. ‘Hikikomori: Understanding the People who Choose to Live in Extreme Isolation’. In:Medical Press. (accessed 22 November 2020)]. Also, due to its sociocultural location, hikikomori are intertwined with a plethora of debates on (youth) social malaise, including issues of precarity, the plight of the working poor, NEETs (Not in Education, Employment of Training), and the like. Moreover, hikikomori often consume large quantities of popular culture products, such as manga, animation and videogames, which connects them with discourses on obsessive consumption, fan cultures (e.g.otaku) and the consequent stigmas of asociality, or even socially pathological behaviors. While it is crucial to study these associations carefully in their own right, still it is evident how the study of hikikomori leads to explore a series of ramifications into wider issues of mental health, social malaise, specific sociocultural milieux, popular culture and consumer attitudes (among others).

From a medical humanities point of view, the study of narrative representations of hikikomori can prove particularly useful to shed light on the different complications of this phenomenon, what different aspects may have generated this behavior, the diverse nature of its expressions, or even the ways in which it may coexist with society. Contemporary Japanese culture offers multifarious portrayals of hikikomori: for example, Kazushige Abe’s novel Nipponia Nippon (2001) gives an often playful articulation of the issue, constructing a delicate psyche in a youth that oscillates between reclusion, compulsive use of technology, and a grandiose act of anti-government violence. Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s novella Welcome to the NHK (2002), then adapted into a successful manga and animated series, presents hikikomori as one aspect of a wider social malaise, entailing related issues of internet suicide and drug use. Furthermore, fictional representations can also debunk assumptions on how hikikomori should be led back into society. For instance, with the story of a recluse/otaku girl who has great pictorial talent, the 2017 film Her Sketchbook (Sekai wa kyō kara kimi no mono; dir. Masaya Ozaki), poses insightful questions as to what happiness and satisfactory social relations may mean for hikikomori, giving alternatives to widespread societal ideals of community and professional achievement as a sign of prosperity.

This are but a few examples of the richness of fictional representations and negotiations of hikikomori identities, whose study from a humanistic perspective can further the understanding of a complex issue of social and mental malaise which cannot be extricated from its contemporary sociocultural background, originally in Japan, but with multiple bridges in the rest of the world.

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